PETROGNANO, TUSCANY— Most of my early childhood memories come from Christmas and Easter. If I let my memory go back as far as it will take me, I can remember opening gifts and the smell of the scotch pine Christmas tree. I also remember eating Christmas cookies. Over the past 61 years I’ll come across a cookie with the same flavor profile, and it takes me back. I can also hear the Chipmunks Christmas album, which I used to play incessantly to the dismay of everyone else in my family.
I have a heightened awareness of memories when they are connected to my senses. Tastes can instantly take me back to a specific time and place. Those early Christmas taste recollections also bring back the memories of sweet rolls and Christmas candy.
As great as Christmases were when I was a kid, and I loved Christmas as a kid, my memories of Easter may be sharper. That surprises me because— I hate to admit this— but I was a materialistic kid. Toys and stuff meant way more than they should have in my first decade or so. But my Easter memories don’t have to do with material, monetary, or worldly things. My strongest and fondest Easter memories are of family.
Christmases were spent in the house in which I grew up. Thanksgivings were spent with aunts, uncles, and cousins in a small town called Brooksville. Easters were spent at my paternal grandmother’s house on 4th Avenue in my hometown of Hattiesburg. I loved that woman. Eunice Holeman St. John probably had a greater impact on me than anyone in my first 30 years on this planet. She was always, and is still, the best example of how to live a purpose-filled, generous, and selfless life I have ever known. The way I was raised was to think first “What would Jesus do?” Though, right, or wrong— and I’m ok if you choose to disagree— I more often, if not always, wondered when faced with a moral dilemma, “What would Mam-Maw do?” She was a saint and an excellent living, breathing example of how to treat others, always do the right thing, and the personification of how to lead a wholesome, healthy, and fruitful life.
Easter Sundays at her house were special. The house smelled like homemade biscuits, roasted lamb, and toasted flour when the gravy was being made. The yard smelled like spring. I spent most of my post-church, pre-lunch time outside hopping from azalea to azalea catching bees in old mayonnaise jars once all the Easter eggs had been found. There was always something blooming in her yard, even in the dead of winter. But springtime especially offered an impressive assemblage of flora and color.
I have strong food memories of Easter, too. My grandmother moved like a pro in the small home kitchen she cooked and baked in for over 70 years. I have eaten lamb in Michelin three-star restaurants all over the world and none have ever been able to top what she was able to create with four electric eyes, one oven, a small worktable, and an old refrigerator in a kitchen that was probably remodeled in the late 1940s. By the time I was 10 years old she had been cooking in that kitchen for over 50 years. She would continue to cook there for another 20. Her leg of lamb is still— by far, and so far it’s not even close— the best lamb I have ever eaten. Period. End of story.
Several years ago, I started hosting tour groups in Europe. It’s nothing I ever planned. I spend three months working over here— six weeks in the spring and six weeks in the fall— leading Americans to see places, meet people, and eat food I have discovered through my travels. Last year one of my tours fell on Easter week. It was tough leading a tour during Easter as the crowds are larger in the cities, a lot of sights and businesses are closed, and most of the people I work with over here wanted to be off and at home with their families.
So, I decided that this year I would take Easter week off, make that a family week, and fly the kids over to spend Easter with their mom and me. They would fly home when the week was over, and I would finish hosting the final three of my five spring groups. It was a great plan, but my son is in culinary school and has finals this week. Our daughter and her boyfriend came as planned and they have both been a joy to be around.
Several years ago, we enjoyed a Tuscan Easter lunch with our kids and their traveling companions at our friends Annagloria and Enzo’s home. I spent last Easter working through the week over here. This Easter we were invited to spend with our friend Marina and her two children in their home. We accepted that invitation enthusiastically.
It was a perfect day. The table was set tastefully and festively. Marina, a Dutch woman living in Italy, had never dyed eggs before, but for her American friends she filled the dining room table with colored hardboiled Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies.
The meal started with crostini and goat cheese with yellow tomatoes (they looked like boiled eggs) in the garden and prosecco was served. A classic Tuscan spring antipasto of raw fava beans, Marzolino cheese (traditional Tuscan fresh cheese), extra virgin olive oil, and salt was next. I have eaten this several times before, but Alec, Marina’s son cut up the Marzolino into small cubes, mixed it with the raw beans, drizzled extra virgin olive oil, gathered from their trees last fall, and added salt and pepper. It was perfect and we all cleaned our plates.
The primo was a very light spaghetti tossed with several fresh garden herbs, olive oil, and freshly grated parmesan. The secondo was an excellent roasted rack of lamb stuffed with a ground lamb meatloaf in the center, served with potatoes and freshly shelled spring peas. I love peas. We had salad after the protein as they do over here, and I brought an Easter millefoglie cake that my friend Toby made at the local bakery.
Marina went all out and was a wonderful hostess. Everyone received giant chocolate bunnies as party favors. The four of us, Marina and her two kids— my two self-declared godchildren— had a grand time and a very long lunch. It was perfect.
In the end, it’s people that make the memory. The food is a component, the atmosphere helps, but it’s sitting down and sharing a meal with the people you love and care about that creates memories. Whether it’s at your grandmother’s home in Hattiesburg Mississippi or a friend’s house in Barberino-Tavarnelle, Tuscany, it’s always the people you’ll remember.
It took me years to realize it’s not the material things and the monetary, worldly things that matter. That’s all stuff and fluff. It’s the relational and spiritual things in life that truly last, that truly matter, and that make lasting memories. My grandmother taught me that without ever speaking a word about it. She lived it. One of the most relational and spiritual holidays is Easter, I have been blessed to spend most of mine with family and friends.
This week’s recipe: Leg of Lamb with Raspberry Mint Chutney